Time magazine on Monday unveiled its 2014 “Person of the Year” finalists: the “Ferguson protesters,” the “Ebola caregivers,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, singer Taylor Swift, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. For once, the participants in the magazine’s online poll had better instincts than the editors, choosing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a more interesting and important world figure than anyone on the list.
I’ve seen some snark online about the culturally omnipresent Swift’s place on the list. She can handle it. But for me, Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, is the most surprising inclusion. According to Time, he is being recognized for having “deftly threaded the region’s push for independence with the ongoing fight against” ISIS.
It has, indeed, been a big year for the Kurds. The collapse of the Iraqi government’s authority in the face of the ISIS invasion has brought the region closer to its goal of full independence than ever before. Kurdish forces have also been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, particularly in the defense of the besieged city of Kobani. More recently, the KRG finalized an economically crucial deal with Baghdad that brought an end to a longs-tanding dispute over oil revenues. Last year the Kurdish government forced an unlikely oil deal with longtime nemesis Turkey.
On the other hand, the region looked surprisingly vulnerable when ISIS pushed into Kurdistan in August. ISIS fighters overwhelmed the defenses put up by the much-vaunted Kurdish peshmerga forces, taking over the country’s largest hydroelectric dam and nearing the regional capital of Erbil. ISIS was eventually pushed back, but only with the help of Western airstrikes. Foreign powers also aren’t in a rush to recognize an independent Kurdistan, and most of the international community is still committed to maintaining a cohesive Iraqi state within its existing borders. As for Barzani, as detailed in a recent profile by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, it’s fair to say he has more invested in the fight against ISIS than virtually any other world leader. But there’s also growing dissatisfaction with him from some parts of Kurdish society, which sees him as too reticent and also has concerns about corruption in the distribution of oil revenue.
My guess is that Barzani isn’t listed here because Time has much interest in him specifically. Rather, the magazine wants to somehow recognize the ISIS situation—one of the year’s biggest news stories—without having to declare ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a candidate for person of the year.
This is a cop-out. Baghdadi is obviously the most important person of 2014. A figure who few outside the region had heard of a year and a half ago has attracted thousands of supporters from around the world to his cause, wantonly slaughtered thousands of enemies, challenged al-Qaida as the world’s foremost jihadi group, set up a pseudo-state that threatens century-old regional boundaries, drawn an extremely reluctant U.S. government into yet another Middle Eastern war, and maintained control for months in the face of opposition from nearly every government on Earth. The man had quite a year.
It’s not like Time has been hesitant to award its annual honor to very bad people in the past. Adolf Hitler (1938) and Josef Stalin (1939 and 1942) are both past persons of the year. In recent years, though, Time has shied away from crediting universally acknowledged evildoers for their newsworthiness. The choice of Vladimir Putin was criticized by the Russian opposition in 2007. (I wouldn’t expect him to be picked this year.) The outrage-storm that would have resulted from choosing Baghdadi would have been worse.
I fully understand that “person of the year” is meant to prompt a news cycle of second-guessing and that I’m taking the bait. Well done, Time! And in the magazine’s defense, while Barzani’s not an inspiring choice, when looking at the other government and Syrian rebel leaders who’ve led the fight against ISIS, it’s hard to come up with a better one. The fact that he’s the best non-Baghdadi candidate Time could come up with gives you some indication of why ISIS has been so hard to eliminate.